By the late 70s Jean Rollin, one of the true visionaries of the horror genre, was finding himself forced to adapt to changing public tastes. The vampire film, his first and greatest love, was no longer fashionable. And gore was increasingly coming to be an essential ingredient of any horror movie that was to have a chance of commercial success. So Rollin abandoned the vampire movie, and turned to directing zombie movies. I happen to dislike zombie movies intensely, but I have to admit that Rollin’s are most definitely a cut above the average zombie flick. In fact his 1982 entry in this sub-genre, The Living Dead Girl, is an excellent little movie. The Grapes of Death, made four years earlier, is a much more conventional zombie film, and for someone like Rollin to make conventional movies is a tragic waste of a unique talent. Within the limits of the type of movie it is, he does however manage to make it reasonably interesting. There are moments of characteristic Rollin visual poetry. It’s beautifully shot, and the settings (in some glorious French countryside) are stunning. He is even able to sneak in the occasional hint of the surreal, something that has always been a crucial element in his movies.
The plot is fairly simple – a young woman finds herself in a rural district that seems to be overrun by zombies. In fact they’re victims of contaminated wine (hence the title), and they’re not actually risen-from-the-dead zombies. And although they’re murderous, they don’t feed on human flesh. Rollin never allows you to forget that they’re still human beings, however tempting it might be to treat them simply as monsters. The moral dilemmas facing the handful of people unaffected by this plague are more forcefully presented than you generally expect in a zombie film. It delivers some genuine chills and plenty of tension, and the ending works well and is quite affecting. My feelings about this movie are very conflicted. Judged as a straightforward horror movie, it’s very good. Judged as a zombie movie it’s extremely good indeed. But judged as a Jean Rollin movie, it’s a disappointment. Whether you’re going to enjoy this one or not very much depends upon what your expectations of it are.